Skip to main content

Railways: Virgin Trains

Volume 698: debated on Monday 28 January 2008

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Why they declined to give Virgin Trains authority to add two coaches to its trains on the west coast main line.

My Lords, the Department for Transport received an unsolicited proposal in 2007 from Virgin Trains to extend its franchise for two years, from 2012 to 2014, which included a plan to lengthen Pendolino trains by adding two carriages. The DfT concluded that this proposal provided significantly less value for money compared with the likely outcome of the refranchising exercise scheduled for completion in 2012. The department is currently preparing proposals to increase capacity on the west coast main line.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that reply. In fact, trains on the west coast main line will be very full before 2012—a fact on which some noble Lords may bear me out. It is important that negotiations between the Government and Virgin Trains reach a successful conclusion. Will the Minister ask his honourable friend in another place, the Minister with responsibility for railways, to take personal charge of the negotiations? I think that officials are stalling those because they rather like to interfere continuously in franchises.

My Lords, discussions with Virgin Rail Group continue at all times. I am happy to pass on the noble Lord’s wishes for my honourable friend to take a more direct interest but my honourable friend already takes a very direct interest in all these matters. We have to continue to improve services and to ensure that we deal with capacity issues, not just in 2012 but as we speak. The growth in passenger numbers on the west coast line has clearly exceeded expectations; it is a very successful rail line indeed.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that it’s a bit ironic that the Government want to provide extra capacity on the west coast main line with these extra coaches while also wanting to put in a third runway at Heathrow to allow more planes to go to Manchester and Glasgow? It seems a bit odd, doesn’t it?

My Lords, I know that the noble Lord likes wicked ironies but the fact is that the west coast main line is becoming increasingly popular. However, there will be a 29 per cent increase in capacity with the adoption of the new timetable from December, and the railway network from Liverpool, Manchester and so on is competing on good terms with air travel between Manchester, certainly, and the London airports.

My Lords, would not one explanation for the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, be that it is cheaper to fly to Manchester than it is to go by train?

That is not the case, my Lords. It certainly is expensive to travel first class with a walk-on ticket, but even first-class walk-on tickets are increasingly popular and that service is operating at higher levels, near to capacity.

My Lords, as someone who has pretty much lived on the Manchester-London train for the past 40 years I compliment Virgin on the investment it has made in the service and on producing an excellent service which is appreciated. Nevertheless, whereas people such as the noble Lords, Lord Barnett and Lord Sheldon, and I have the luxury of travelling first class, it is very crowded in standard class. I urge the Minister to take on board my noble friend’s pleadings to get that extra rolling stock in as soon as possible.

My Lords, as I am sure noble Lords will know, we have already begun to bring into play another 1,300 carriages as part of the HLOS specification. From the end of this year, as I said, there will be a 29 per cent increase in overall timetabled mileage. I am sure that that will be welcomed very much by standard-class travellers.

My Lords, it is not possible to work out whether that 29 per cent increase will affect some of the west coast main line trains going to Cumbria and further north. I am a frequent user of those services. Sometimes, in standard class, people are sitting on floors because the trains are so crowded. Can my noble friend give out any hope that the improvements he is talking about will happen on that particular stretch of line before 2012?

My Lords, as I explained, this increase in timetabled mileage will kick in with the new timetable in December. Not all the increase will be experienced during peak times but it will be a measurable improvement to the service. It is part of the continuing modernisation programme, which has been extraordinarily successful. The resulting expectations have generated a great deal of extra take-up of the service by passengers.

My Lords, perhaps I may take the Minister back to the original Question. Why, if Virgin railways wants to add two coaches to a train, does it have to ask for permission from a Minister?

My Lords, as I am sure the noble Earl will know from his time in government, franchising is a very specific process: there is flexibility within the process, but there are also many knock-on consequences. If you add on two extra carriages, you have to ensure that all the platforms are sufficiently long to take them into account. It has to be subject to detailed negotiation.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the problem of the west coast main line is one of success, and that the service’s popularity is such that all the trains now envisaged will be full by 2011—not by 2014, which was in the original strategy? As a result, is it not the case that the order for new coaches needs to be brought forward, because it takes two or three years for those to come into service? Otherwise, there will be terrible overcrowding from 2011 onwards?

My Lords, the noble Lord is right about the need for urgency in ensuring that the orders are placed so that the extra capacity is available, and that is exactly what the Department for Transport is now engaged in. Quite frankly, the department felt that the benefits to be gained in extra capacity would not be sufficiently great to justify giving Virgin Trains an extension in its franchise. However, Virgin is doing a remarkable job. It is an extremely successful service. We are delighted to see so many new passengers using trains in the new age of rail. It continues to be a major success story.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that job satisfaction and job security in the rail industry are in proportion to the franchise lengths? Is it possible that the opposite applies to officials and consultants in his department?

My Lords, I had rather hoped for a more edifying question from the noble Earl; I think he does the department a disservice. Last Thursday, he himself said that,

“the rail industry is a victim of its own success”.

He went on to say that,

“a lot of problems in the industry have been slowly and steadily resolved”.—[Official Report, 24/1/08; col. GC 166.]

That is absolutely the case, and it is because of the hard work of our officials.